Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive-surplus A few weeks ago, a random email asked if I wanted to take part in helping promote Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus on a blog book tour. As a follower of Clay’s writing for many years, I enthusiastically said yes, and they sent a hard copy of the book (I ended up buying a kindle version and read it on my iPhone, since I prefer that to printed books these days).

Simply put, Cognitive Surplus is a fantastic read that is loaded with real-world examples as well as tons of research that ties all the concepts together. The gist of the story Clay weaves is how we’ve spent the previous 50 years staring at televisions but the internet enables us to finally talk back, and even tiny slices of the time wasted watching TV when applied towards some collective output can result in massive repositories of information like Wikipedia. He shows many contemporary examples of online collaboration beyond and breaks down the motivations for contributors that cites plenty of sociology, psychology, and economics research to back his points up.

I’ve seen Clay speak at many conferences in the past and I’ve enjoyed, quoted, and argued many of his previous essays on his (sadly now languishing) site. I read his last book Here Comes Everybody as well, and the one thing that really blows me away about Cognitive Surplus is how he completely and utterly envelopes the points he wants to make. I feel like his previous work would touch on a whole bunch of issues but never really get to the heart of why things are the way they are, but in this new book he drills deep on every point with plenty of examples and studies to back him up. I’ve seen some criticism of various aspects of the book, where readers either think the trend of free collaboration online is short lived or that it’s not part of a larger trend as Clay sees it. Clay is very much a futurist in some aspects, and his expertise has always been in spotting interesting new trends very early on, and describing them to large audiences right before they take root and become the norm.

I feel like we’re on the cusp of a real revolution now thanks to the democratization of online tools. Back in the early days of the web and even blogging, you had to be a programmer, developer, or at least technically minded enough to write your own software, publish your own HTML, and manage your sites using many disparate tools. It was very much like the days of very early television where the guys that could control the cameras wrote all the shows because there wasn’t any other way. In 2010, we thankfully have a ton of simple to use tools like Twitter, Tumblr, and Posterous that take the need to be a programmer or developer out of the equation and simply let anyone say what they want with minimal knowledge and minimal friction. In the future, we’ll see these tools used in ways we never thought possible and when the next unknown random person makes a post that becomes worldwide news, I’m sure Clay Shirky will be there to tell us all about it, and I very much look forward to reading about it.

Summer Reading

Obit is a great book I’ve been meaning to mention here. When I was at the news writer workshop last month, I learned that there’s a great tradition in obituary writing where journalists don’t simply summarize two lines about a death, viewings, and family left behind. Some actually go out and interview people and piece together a story of someone’s life.

Jim Sheeler has an interesting column in the Rocky Mountain News — he picks out regular people that have never appeared in the paper before and does an exhaustive story of their life. The book is simply a colleciton of his best. At times it can get kind of schmaltzy, but overall it’s more uplifting than it is depressing to read about the lives of 50 deceased people. You find out that even the most ordinary people can lead extraordinary lives.

I got to meet Jim at the workshop and I soon realized I’d read his stuff before. He did a highly acclaimed series on the military program that informs families that they lost their children in battle.

What the hell, old school bloggers?

On some random blog, I found a link to this book “Founders at Work“, a book interviewing the founders of tech companies. The person mentioned Caterina talks about Flickr in it, among big famous 70s and 80s software geniuses so I ordered it thinking it’d be a history book about a bunch of classic Silicon Valley companies with maybe a recent one like Flickr thrown in there.

It just showed up and I can’t believe how many recent companies are in it (, Blogger, Six Apart, 37Signals, etc) but I didn’t hear about this book from any of the long-term bloggers that are part of it. C’mon Ev, Mena, Jason, and others! I read your blogs daily, and would have ordered this book weeks ago if I knew it existed.

One freaky year

According to the NYT, Freakonomics was the most blogged-about book of the year, which isn’t too surprising considering how much I read about it on pretty much every blog that mentions books. It is impressive that it beat Harry Potter out this year, since everyone I know seemed to mention that book at least once on their blog as well.

I enjoyed Freakonomics in the audio version and then without really thinking about it, I kind of followed some of the advice and points made in the book in my own life.

We sold our first house and bought a new one this year and in the process learned that we really could do without a realtor, just as the authors described. We staged our old house ourselves, and pushed our realtor to get us on the weekly home tour. I took photos for our listing and helped write it, keeping in mind the lessons from the book and removed every empty phrase like “fabulous” and “wonderful” and replaced them with descriptive terms like “open” and “large”. We did all of our new home shopping online and by canvassing the city and calling builders with works in progress. We found and bought our new house without any realtors involved at all. It was surprisingly easy — whenever I was wondering what we were supposed to do at a stage in the financing/offer/escrow process, I could just punch up google and get all the info I needed. Google searches lead me to offer letter templates, legal ramifications for each document we signed, and how to find the best financing. While I like my realtor and consider her a personal friend, if we ever sell our new home, we’ll do it ourselves and save a few grand next time around.

The other big takeaway from the book was that life insurance is another industry that only commanded high prices by hiding information. I actually got a great life insurance policy for myself using the site mentioned in the text, accuquote. It was lower than a couple estimates I got from small town agents, since accuquote seems to be a front for a zillion agents that can sell you a policy from any company.

A lot has been written about co-author Steven Levitt asking questions no economist ever has before, but I think his real gift is finding just the right dataset that teases out noise and gets at answers to impossible queries. Someone, somewhere has done a sociological survey of pretty much everything on earth, but few social scientists ever use the data outside those issuing the surveys — but Levitt seems to somehow find them. I became a huge fan of the book because it rekindled my love of the scientific method and I hope the book inspires a generation of students to take an unconventional look at their area of study, ask impossible questions, then find the right dataset to help answer them.

The age of paradox

I noticed a trend in the books I’ve read lately (Everything Bad Is Good for You, Blink, and Freakonomics) is to point out things in our culture that should seem one way, but turn out to be another way entirely.

This is just a datapoint, but I couldn’t help but wonder all last summer about the never ending run of Napoleon Dynamite at the local art house theater. We have this single screen, old art deco place that usually plays a very small independent movie or two each week, and then it is gone. But for a solid month they ran Dynamite, then after swapping a few others, brought it back for another few weeks of steady business. What I also found baffling was this dusty old theater was usually filled with 40 to 60 year olds watching low budget character pieces, and it was constantly packed with teens and college-aged film viewers.

Napoleon Dynamite seems like one giant paradox of entertainment to me, one that I figured had no chance of success for several reasons:

– The film has a thin plot and moves incredibly slowly. There’s a joke, then twenty minutes of dead slow story, then another payoff.

The movie felt like it was four hours long to me, and I’m used to watching thin plots with lots of dead time. But the paradox is that it’s a slow cooker of a film, and it’s a hit with young people. That doesn’t make sense, if you’ve read about how “kids today all have ADD” and “the jump cuts of MTV and fast pace of video games are killing their attention span.” The conventional wisdom is that if you want to reach an audience of 17 year olds, make a movie like Charlie’s Angels with explosions, hot women, and an easy to grasp story.

– To call the main character Napoleon Dynamite a nerd is a disservice to nerds. He goes way beyond your average geek and almost comes off as a depressed aspergers sufferer. Why on earth would every kid from the local college and high school identify with him? If you’ve seen the Merchants of Cool, conventional wisdom is that popular, photogenic people will always be cool and what kids will hope to attain. Are we in some sort of dystopia where most kids identify with Napoleon Dynamite because they share his experiences and not that of the “cool” folks? Is it just the Rudy-esque triumph over the jocks that his dancing reveals at the end?

That’s all I have for now, but something struck me as a parallel between recent books challenging the notions we’ve always held as true, and the strange, wild popularity of a small, geeky, outside-of-hollywood film that met with great success, but by all measures, probably should have been a flop.


I ran a bunch of errands today and plowed through the entire audiobook of Freakonomics. I’d say I liked it even more than Blink. It turns just about every issue on its ear with a look at the data surrounding it. Babies, Guns, Schools, Corporations, Crime, Sports, Abortion, Drugs, Cheating, Gangs, Murder… everything gets the treatment. I could immediately tell their approach to answering questions is the type of thing that will make me follow their work for as long as they publish books on the subject. I sincerely hope they’ve got a whole Freakonomics Series in them.

If I had to point to any problems with the text (and this is a small nitpick that will make me sound like Andy Rooney, but…): I don’t like it when books aimed at the mainstream mix and misuse words between the scientific and causal realms. The authors here called every hypothesis a “theory” and when pointing out correlations in their data would often said the data “proved” a point. To “prove” something and describe something as a “theory” are both significant terms used when describing research and while Gladwell does it in Blink a lot too, tenured economics professors should know better than to play loose with meaningful words.

I started in on Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation audiobook shortly after Freakonomics and so far it’s a wonderful mix of quirky comedy and a history lesson. Also a highly recommended iTunes purchase.

Hacking MT book coming soon

I’ve been working on a few chapters for this book going on at least a year now, if not more. Let’s put it this way: when we started, we had barely any contact with folks at Six Apart and I had to strain my friendship with the Trotts to get them to answer questions about the someday-beta MT 3.0 we heard was on the horizon. When I wrote my chapters, MT 2.6 was new, but Ben and Jay completely rewrote the rest of the book when 3.1 was released (and two authors ended up employed by 6A so they know every in and out of the software).

Don’t listen to what Ben says here, he was a superhero (along with Jay) that saved the project and made it what it is.

Dead pixels instead of dead trees

I love books, I love browsing stacks, I love libraries, I love Powell’s in Portland, I like collecting books, I always have a stack nearby to read, I love looking through picture books, and I love books even though I didn’t really become much of a reader until the end of my college years (I never read for fun until then). Plunging into the Internet fed my book addiction further, as I had to read dozens of computer classics to get up to speed and stay ahead of the curve. Every computer desk I’ve had until recently was flanked by bookshelves loaded with titles.

Earlier this year, I remember hearing Cory Doctorow give a talk about how ebooks were going to rule the world and folks would abandon the printed page for the laptop screen. I thought it was a good talk, but I felt the thesis was a bit ahead of its time. There’s really no comparison between curling up with a book and a blanket in front of a fireplace, versus trying to read thousands of words on a screen.

Last weekend I was doing some house cleaning and I kept finding stacks of books. A stack next to the reading chairs. A stack on the coffee table. A stack beside my bed. All these stacks contained books I bought in 2004, but never read. Some, I got halfway through, but even more I got maybe ten pages in. A few I never even cracked open.

When I think back to the last three books I enjoyed, they were all heard on my iPod, while on a road trip. I can’t recall the last book I finished in my hands.

I’m going to take a holiday trip soon to a fairly remote location where there’s not much to do besides read. I’m going to sit and read the only book I’ve wanted to read this year, and I have a feeling it might just be one of the last dead tree books I read for a long time.

As much as I didn’t agree with Cory back during his E-tech talk, I’m finally realizing it’s coming true in my own life. I read thousands of words everyday on my monitors and I rarely take time to read anything on the printed page, and there’s no sign of reversal on that trend. The scariest thing for the bookfan inside me is that I don’t think it’s bad thing, either.

Long live the ebook. Long live the audiobook. So long, dead trees.

What’s the Matter with Kansas

I bought and listened to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas (it’s just a 45min monologue at the iTMS). Frank uncovers how the GOP became the voice of the everyman while pushing law and policy that generally benefit the upper class most of all. It’s a vexing problem but I’ve always attributed it to language and the GOP controlling the debate. Frank goes a bit deeper and reveals a 30 year plan of campaigns that stress values, but that deliver economic law instead. So the game is to get people riled up over issues, but the GOP never actually does anything about the issues, instead concentrating on pushing laws that deregulate industries. He also goes into how the GOP exploits victimhood, since they never “win the culture war” and come off as the underdog, even though they control all three houses of the government.

The only downside to all this is that while Frank points out the root of the problem, he doesn’t offer any solutions (at least not in the audiobook version).